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'Godfather of Poker' Doyle Brunson dies at 89


The man known to some as the godfather of poker has died. Doyle Brunson's career in many ways parallels the trajectory of the game he played - from an illicit backroom card game to a widely televised sport.


Brunson didn't start out as a card player. He played college basketball and was on track to join the Minneapolis Lakers in the 1950s. Then, he broke his leg, and that injury set him on a different path.

CHANG: He started out small, playing weekend poker games around Texas. It was a reputational risk at the time, as he said on the show, "Poker Superstars."


DOYLE BRUNSON: People that you thought were your friends actually looked down on you because they thought you were some kind of a gangster or something because you were a poker player.

SHAPIRO: He did encounter some gangsters while frequenting illegal games. He said he got arrested multiple times, got cheated and robbed. Once, at a farmhouse in Austin, he says seven guys in ski masks took the players' money and held Brunson at gunpoint.


BRUNSON: So he had one of those old-fashioned shotguns where you cock the hammers. And he cocked both of the hammers on his double-barrel shotgun, and he set it right here between my eyes. He said, I said who runs this poker game? I told him, that guy right down there in the green shirt. So everybody laughed about it for years.

CHANG: Soon, though, Brunson and the game took on a higher stature with the 1970 launch of the World Series of Poker. He went on to win 10 World Series tournaments, picking up the nickname Texas Dolly, and he became the first player to win a million dollars in tournament play.

SHAPIRO: He wrote about his strategies. His book, called "Super/System," appeared in the opening scenes of the 1998 gambling film "Rounders," with Matt Damon pulling a wad of hundred-dollar bills out of the book.


MATT DAMON: (As Mike McDermott) If you can't spot the sucker in your first half hour at the table, then you are the sucker.

CHANG: In 2006, the site Gutshot Poker asked Brunson if he had plans to retire.


BRUNSON: No, I'll retire when I can't win any longer. And until then, I plan on just keep playing.

CHANG: And keep playing, he did. He even entered the World Series of Poker in 2021, though he did not win. He finished his career with more than $6 million in tournament earnings.

SHAPIRO: Doyle Brunson died Sunday in Las Vegas. He was 89.

(SOUNDBITE OF KENNY ROGERS SONG, "THE GAMBLER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Kai McNamee
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.